In the era of dial-up BBS, a particular style of digital illustration emerged that used 256 characters of text and 16 colors to create a vibrant array of artwork. Here’s a look at why ANSI art emerged and how it still serves as a unique hallmark of early online culture.
What is ANSI art?
In the days before the Internet became mainstream in the home, another electronic medium called Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes) provided online access to chat with other computer owners, share files, and even play games.
To connect to a BBS during the golden era, you needed a PC, a dial-up modem, a phone line, and a text-based terminal emulation program. terminal emulators (ex ProCom Plus) on the IBM PC) could only display 16 color text and ASCII characters – no bitmap graphics. This limitation was passed on from the telex days, when special codes transmitted serially represented different letters on a page. As terminals became more sophisticated (including using video screens instead of paper), manufacturers added new ways to control text output, including positioning the cursor anywhere on the screen or toggling between text styles.
ANSI art is a special type of computer art that originated on the IBM PC in the 1980s and was primarily used to provide colorful digital illustrations for text-based BBS. The ANSI art palette consists of the 256 characters defined in the IBM PC “extended ASCII” character set (also known as Code page 437.) Code Page 437, in particular, enabled a new dimension in text-based art due to its block characters (which could be used similarly to pixels), gradient blocks for shading effects, and special single- and double-width lines for drawing boxes and menus.
ANSI graphics can use 16 foreground and 8 background colors as defined by ANSI.SYS under MS DOS. The ANSI art relies on special terminal control sequences known as “escape codes‘ (a form of the aforementioned terminal control codes), and this is where the ‘ANSI’ part really comes into play.
ANSI stands for “American National Standards Institute‘, an organization that maintains standards in the United States. ANSI style gets its name from the use of ANSI escape codes defined by ANSI X3.64 default Adopted in 1979. These escape codes provide a text-based way to send control codes to a text-based terminal to change colors, position the cursor anywhere on the screen, and more. This cursor control ability also allows ANSI artists to create animations and fancy animated effects such as spinning cursors at BBS prompts.
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Why did people use ANSI art?
With no other graphical skills to fall back on, many PC-based BBSs used ANSI art as decoration and embellishment that gave their systems personality. And BBS callers would sometimes trade or collect ANSI artwork (with the .ANS file extension) for fun.
Likewise, BBS door games (such as Trade Wars 2002 and Legend of the Red Dragonfor example) used ANSI art for title screens and colorful illustrations that added atmosphere to the gaming experience.
To create ANSI graphics, a special program called ANSI editor was often used. The earliest known specialized ANSI editor was ANSIdrawpublished circa 1985. The following year Ian Davis published The tie, which became the most popular ANSI art editor for many years. Later, dedicated ANSI artists moved on to more demanding programs such as ACiDDraw and PabloDrawwhich is maintained to this day.
As ANSI became a popular art form on BBS, it didn’t take long for a dedicated ANSI art community to emerge. Various groups such as ACiD productions (originally short for “ANSI Creators In Demand”) and Ice (“Insane Creator Enterprises”) collected the best art from a group of artists and regularly distributed them in “Art Packs” (compressed files full of ANSIs) traded on BBSes.
What happened to ANSI art?
By the mid-1990s, the rise of the graphical web rendered the text-based communication of serial terminals obsolete. The graphical web could display bitmap images, various high-resolution fonts, and interact with a mouse in a modern graphical user interface (GUI). In contrast, the terminal-like experience on a BBS was largely a holdover from an earlier age, before the GUI.
When the internet came along, BBS usage dropped dramatically in the mid to late 1990s, making ANSI art less necessary. Also, by this time, Windows was becoming widespread in the PC world, and most fonts didn’t include the special Code Page 437 “extended ASCII” characters that made ANSI graphics work. So even if you invoked a BBS in a terminal emulator running under Windows, the fonts would normally not render ANSI art correctly. Also, proportional (variable-spaced) fonts made both ANSI and ASCII artbreaks because they relied on them Fixed width fonts to work properly.
While ANSI art declined dramatically in the early 2000s (and some ANSI artists switched to bitmap art published as JPEGs), a resurgence of BBS nostalgia has brought the art back over the past 15 years. Some die-hard ANSI artists today Still create ANSI art for both modern BBS and for viewing on the Internet thanks to special sites.
Either way, if you want to look at ANSI art today, you can look at extensive archives 16color.rs and Artpacks.org. Both sides allow you to view ANSI graphics as graphic images in your browser without the need for special software. If you want to see ASCII art, ASCIIart.edu got you covered. Have fun!
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